Sunday, August 10, 2014

Nehemiah: a Book Report

The following is from a work-in-progress called "The Bible: a Book Report" in which I read each book of the Bible, summarize it in my own words, and occasionally give some commentary.  I will also include biblical artwork by famous artists.

During the rule of the Persian Empire, when the Jews were being allowed to re-settle in Jerusalem, after many years in exile, there lived a man named Nehemiah.  He was a Jew who served as the cupbearer to the emperor of Persia (modern-day Iran), Ataxerxes.

While Nehemiah was living in Susa, the capitol of Persia, his brother and some friends returned from Jerusalem to visit him.  Nehemiah asked them how things were going in Jerusalem, with the resettlement.  His brother told him the people were really struggling, that the wall surrounding Jerusalem was broken, and the gates burned.  This made Nehemiah very sad and depressed.  He spent many days fasting and praying for his suffering people.

Emperor Ataxerxes noticed that Nehemiah was depressed, so he asked him why he was so down.  Nehemiah replied, “Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my father’s tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed with fire?”  Ataxerxes said, “What would you request?”

Nehemiah asked that he be allowed to return to Jerusalem to help rebuild its walls and gates.  He also asked for wood.  The emperor consented, and Nehemiah headed home to Jerusalem, with a bunch of building materials.

While he was traveling, some foreign leaders heard about Nehemiah’s plan, and determined to make things difficult for the Jews.

Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and inspected the walls and gates, finding them just as his brother had said—badly broken and in need of rebuilding.  So he organized the people of Jerusalem and they began to rebuild the gates and walls of the city.  It was a big project involving many people, with Nehemiah as the leader.

"Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem" (artist unknown)

While they were building, other local people groups (the Horonites, the Ammonites, and the Arabs) mocked them, and made fun of their wall.  But Nehemiah encouraged the people, and the building continued.  When they could see that the building project might actually be completed, the Horonites, Ammonites, and the Arabs conspired to attack the Jews, to prevent them from completing the task.

Again, Nehemiah encouraged his people, telling them to trust in God.  He also armed them, and stationed guards around the wall, to protect the workers.  The builders also carried swords while they worked.  Nehemiah said to the armed builders and guards: “Do not be afraid of them: remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, and your houses.”  Armed and organized, the Jews continued building.

As if things weren’t tough enough, a famine struck the land, and the wealthy people began to exploit the poor people by foreclosing on their mortgages and lending them money at high interest rates.  Nehemiah put a stop to that.   He gave a speech, basically saying, “Look, rich people, we’re trying to rebuild a nation here, and your greed isn’t helping.  Treat your brothers fairly.”  So they did.  Nehemiah set the example, by not taking a salary.

And so, despite threats from neighboring people, famine, and rich peoples’ greed, the wall was completed.  The scribe Ezra then read the book of the Laws of Moses to all the people, standing atop the newly-built wall.  Some translators were needed, because not everyone spoke Hebrew anymore (they’d been exiled to foreign nations).  When the people heard the law, they got really sad, and started weeping.  The laws of Leviticus are not the most uplifting things to read.  Again Nehemiah, the perpetual optimist, encouraged the people, basically saying, “Come on, guys!  Cheer up!  This is a day of joy and celebration!”  So the people were joyful and celebrated.

Then the people worshipped God and confessed their sins, and the priests composed a beautiful poem, which retold the history of Israel, from Abraham all the way to the present day, all the trials and tribulations the people had suffered, and the ultimate goodness of God, despite everything.  The poem contains this lovely (and arguably new) vision of God:

“Thou art a God of forgiveness,
Gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger,
And abounding in lovingkindness.”

Under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra, the priests and elders of Israel signed a new covenant with God, pledging obedience to His laws.  They also agreed to exclude all foreigners from Israel, particularly Horonites, Ammonites, and Arabs.

"Nehemiah Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem and Enemies are Attacking" from the Alba Bible (1430)

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